Making Sense of the Rittenhouse Verdict (almost)

Last week I got into an argument with a friend about the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. Even though my friend self-identifies as liberal, he’s quite a bit further to the right than I am, We don’t see eye to eye on many issues, the Rittenhouse trial included.   

Rittenhouse, of course, was the 18-year-old who stood trial for killing two men and wounding another at a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 20th, 2020. The trial ended last Friday with Rittenhouse found innocent of all charges leveled against him.

My friend had agreed with me that as a 17-year-old, Rittenhouse had no business inserting himself into the chaotic protests that turned into riots that night in Kenosha. We also agreed that despite its being legal, carrying an AR-15 into such a volatile situation should not be permitted to anyone – especially to a callow teenager. In my friend’s eyes, Rittenhouse certainly was no hero.

Yet, the trial verdict, he maintained, was correct. He said according to Wisconsin law, Rittenhouse’s life had been credibly threatened by the ones he shot. Besides, his attackers were related to Antifa and Black Lives Matter (BLM) — Marxist groups that routinely engage in riots, while condoning arson, vandalism, and other forms of property destruction.  

In an act of political cowardice, local leaders, my friend insisted, had ordered the police to stand down as what CNN shamelessly called the “mostly peaceful protests” turned violent. That’s why business owners welcomed the aid of civilians like Rittenhouse to defend their threatened shops and stores.

Finally, according to my friend, the Rittenhouse trial had been falsely racialized by a coordinated mainstream media (MSM) effort. The whole incident, he said, had nothing to do with allegations of racism, especially since all four of the victims (Rittenhouse included) were white

I disagreed with many of the positions just reviewed – especially with the justification of the jury’s final verdict. After all, influenced by the prevailing MSM narrative, I was under the impression that Rittenhouse had gratuitously traveled all the way from Illinois with his assault weapon.  I thought he had not only purchased his gun illegally but had broken the law by crossing state lines with it. I also thought Rittenhouse had chased down his victims and that after shooting them, he was simply allowed to go free by smiling police officers in riot gear.

My initial bone of contention with the jury’s verdict also involved the behavior of the presiding judge, Bruce Schroeder, At every turn he gave strong evidence of favoring Rittenhouse. For instance, the judge forbade prosecutors from referring to the ones Rittenhouse had killed as “victims.” However, they could be identified, he said, as “looters,” “rioters,” and “arsonists.” Dismayingly, Schroeder had also disallowed charges that the teenager’s possession of an assault rifle was illegal.

My argument with my friend caused me to do further research. To my surprise, I discovered he was right in much of what he said, and that under Wisconsin law Rittenhouse was indeed within his legal rights to shoot his victims in self-defense.

Still, however, I found myself disturbed by the entire affair and what it reveals about the law, the right to bear arms, and especially about the prejudices of the mainstream media.

Let me try to explain by first setting the general context of the Rittenhouse trial along with a brief review of the laws especially relevant to the case. I’ll then recount the sequence of events on the night of August 20th, 2020, as supported by video evidence. Finally, I’ll draw those conclusions I promised about what I think the Rittenhouse trial tells us about the current state of our country’s culture — and about me.

Context and Law

In order to understand the Rittenhouse trial, it helps, I think, to review its highly charged racial context as well as the legal elements that often went largely unreported in the MSM. The important factors include the following:

  1. A long history of police violence directed specifically against black communities across the country.
  2. The longstanding conviction within those communities (and outside it) that the resulting police shootings, arrests, convictions, and imprisonments are far out-of-proportion to the size of black populations in the United States
  3. The August 23rd paralyzation of African American Jacob Blake by a white Kenosha police officer who shot Blake seven times in the back in the proximate presence of Blake’s three small children
  4. The subsequent demonstrations in Kenosha and across the country
  5. The participation of the Black Lives Matter organization in those demonstrations. (BLM is a broad-based movement encompassing many different philosophies and strategies all intent on responding defensively to police violence.)
  6. The fact that many BLM members and sympathizers are white and that historically the law has treated such people in the same way it treats black people. (This suggests that the white skin color of Rittenhouse’s victims by no means removes racism from the story’s equation.)
  7. Wisconsin gun law that allows underaged children to legally carry long barreled rifles
  8. Wisconsin self-defense law that presumes innocence on the part of those claiming its protection, while placing a high-bar burden of proof on those contradicting self-defense claims.
  9. The widely shared impression of prejudice given by the judge presiding over the Rittenhouse trial

The Sequence of Events

With that context in mind, consider the facts of the Rittenhouse case:

  1. Though living In Illinois, Kyle Rittenhouse worked (as a lifeguard) in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a 20-minute drive from his Illinois home.
  2. Even as a 17-year-old, Rittenhouse had from Wisconsin statute the legal right to carry his AR 15 into the Kenosha protests.
  3. He was acting as a vigilante allegedly to protect the private property of local businesses in the town where he worked.
  4. In a parking lot, where he claimed to have gone to extinguish fires set by protestors, Rittenhouse encountered Joseph Rosenbaum and Rosenbaum’s associate, Joshua Ziminski who was armed.
  5. (Rosenbaum had earlier in the day been released from a psychiatric hospital. He had a history of violent outbursts and was under a restraining order separating him from his fiancé. The night in question, he was filmed pushing a flaming dumpster towards a gas station. When stopped by other protestors, he responded angrily in a threatening manner.)
  6. In the parking lot, Rosenbaum challenged Rittenhouse and lunged towards him.
  7. Rittenhouse turned and ran away pursued by Rosenbaum who threw at Rittenhouse a plastic bag filled with personal items belonging to Rosenbaum.
  8. Rittenhouse stopped and turned around. He then resumed running from Rosenbaum.
  9. Meanwhile, Ziminski fired a shot in the air. His was thus the first shot fired during this incident.
  10. Still pursued by Rosenbaum, Rittenhouse fled into a parking area where he fired four shots at his pursuer fatally wounding him.
  11. Rittenhouse circled back, looked at Rosenbaum’s body, and phoned his friend, Dominick Black.
  12. Identified as an active shooter by an angry crowd, Rittenhouse ran from the scene.
  13. He was hit in the head by one pursuer.
  14. Afterwards, Rittenhouse kept running, but eventually fell.
  15. An unidentified man tried to “jump kick” Rittenhouse, who then fired a shot.
  16. Anthony Huber (a friend of Jacob Blake) then hit Rittenhouse with a skateboard and grabbed at his AR-15. Rittenhouse fired again killing Huber.
  17. Gaige Grosskreutz (one of Rittenhouse’s pursuers) initially raised his hands before Rittenhouse who was lying on the ground pointing his AR 15 at his attackers.
  18. He held fire.
  19. Grosskreutz then lunged at Rittenhouse with his own handgun.
  20. Rittenhouse shot Grosskreutz in his right arm.
  21. The crowd backed off.
  22. Rittenhouse got up and ran towards the police.
  23. He appeared to surrender with his hands up.
  24. The police however ignored him driving by at high speed.
  25. Rittenhouse then got a ride home from his friend Dominick Black.
  26. Rittenhouse’s mother subsequently drove her son to the local police station where in tears he turned himself in.

As reported on the Jimmy Dore Show, all of this is on video which one can see here.

Lessons Learned

As I said, the just-reviewed sequence of events set within the contextual factors cited lead me to conclude that the Rittenhouse trial was not falsely racialized. The question of race was part and parcel of the protest against police brutality in the case of Jacob Blake. Black Lives Matter protestors on the scene (both black and white) were there to protest such violence which they saw as racially motivated. Within that context, protestors had good reason to suspect that vigilantes like Kyle Rittenhouse represented the forces of white supremacy that gave rise to BLM itself.

I also conclude that the jury’s decision might have been technically correct, but it ended up highlighting the need for basic legal reform. It points up yet again the fact that U.S. gun laws are highly dangerous. To allow armed individuals (regardless of age) to take part in any public protest ipso facto courts disaster. Instead, anyone carrying a weapon under such circumstances should be immediately arrested and detained.

Even more specific to the Rittenhouse case, it seems that allowing individuals to create an unnecessarily dangerous situation and then to claim self-defense when the situation turns threatening against them personally is somehow contradictory.

Additionally, the whole incident calls attention to the need for drastic police reform, unfortunately termed “defunding the police.” Something is basically wrong when millions of taxpayer dollars spent on a highly militarized police force cannot produce public servants capable of maintaining order and of protecting peaceful protestors. Something is wrong when  the beneficiaries of such funding are reduced to dependence on armed vigilantes to do their work.

Finally, the first amendment’s clear assertion of the right to freedom of speech, protest, and petition is at least as important a part of the Constitution as the political right’s tortured and overly broad interpretation of its “right to bear arms.” Yet, within our culture’s current crisis, protest against police violence and racism tends to be criminalized, while citizen possession of weapons of war is not only tolerated but celebrated.

Conclusion

My most important conclusion, however, has to do with the mainstream media and even with some alternative liberal sources. It has to do with me.

Certainly, the media in question did its readers and viewers no favor in its portrayal of the Rittenhouse trial and what led up to it. Reporting on the event exhibited for all to see the laziness, sheer negligence, and outright deception of such news agencies. They even allowed many in their audiences to draw the conclusion that the ones shot by Rittenhouse were black. Certainly, they convinced me that Rittenhouse had traveled “all the way from Illinois” carrying an illegally purchased firearm “across state lines.

Most painfully then, the Rittenhouse trial and my discussion with my friend brought to the surface my own laziness and excessive trust not only in The New York Times, and Washington Post, but in sources that share my preconceptions. The fact is, I try to stay on top of such important events. And yet my original interpretation of the trial just reviewed shows that I’ve not been vigilant enough.

Vigilance, suspicion, and caution then are what I most learned from the Rittenhouse trial. I also learned something important about the benefits of honest dialog with “the opposition.”

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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